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Juno Lewis Dies at 70

Percussionist/instrument inventor Julian Bernard “Juno” Lewis, the composer and musician featured on the title track to John Coltrane’s album Kulu Sé Mama, died in Los Angeles April 9. He was 70.

A tribute CD is being recorded by some of the area’s best jazz musicians, and there will be a three-hour memorial concert April 27, 5-9 p.m., in Los Angeles at the SGI-USA Los Angeles Friendship Center at 5899 Venice Blvd. For more info, contact Carol Simpson at 310-457-4219.

The following is excerpted from Simpson’s program guide for the April 27 tribute concert:

Juno was born on July 6, 1931 in New Orleans. A child prodigy, Juno learned to play the trumpet at age 6 and designed and made his first drum at age 7 using just a knife and chisel. He taught himself to sculpt by squeezing mud as he played on the banks of the Mississippi river, nine blocks from his home in New Orleans’ 13th ward.

A professional drummer at the age of 16, Juno credited his inherited talent to his grandfather, Jules Narcisse, a member of the Musicians Company F, 4th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. While still young, Juno worked with a dance act in New Orleans and a few jazz acts in the French quarter. “But they outlawed me, he said, because I was playing a conga drum…. This was a strange type of drum to those musicians at the time.” Long before it was in vogue in the ’60s, Juno turned to Africa for cultural inspiration, drawing from the African art and musical traditions surrounding him in New Orleans. His group, Juno’s Calypso Quartet, played in nightclubs throughout the city.

Juno moved to California about 50 years ago. He settled in Los Angeles and studied under Laura Bowman and Leroy Antoine and played such clubs as Larry Potter’s and the Crescendo in L.A.; the Thunderbird in Vegas; the Chi Chi Club in Palm Springs; and the Mapes hotel in Reno.

In 1957, Juno decided to give up show business and concentrate on his dream to design and market his own instruments. He opened Juno’s Conga Villa in L.A. where he sold his drum creations and held instructional classes. Still, he often took gigs to support his artistic fancies.

In 1965, Juno met John Coltrane through a mutual friend and only four days later recorded “Kulu Sé Mama,” (“Juno Sé Mama”) with him. It a song based on a poem, which he sang in reverence to his mother and also his father. It consisted of seven of Juno’s drums, two tenor saxophones, two bass violins, two conventional sets of drums, a pianist and a conch shell.

Juno founded the Children’s Music Center Inc., in 1973, a corporation specializing in the sale of instruments, books and records for children and providing all kinds of music lessons. He also started the first African-American Film Department at USC.

A close friend of the late Billy Higgins, Juno became one of the most highly respected elders of the Leimert Park jazz community and played a leading role in the L.A. jazz renaissance movement.

Juno is known for his dakhka-de-bello, a six-tone combination of wood drum and xylophone that makes an echoing, waterfall-type sound. The dakhka-de-bello can be heard on Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, on two Miles Davis albums and several John Coltrane releases.

Originally Published